A couple of days after the Obama administration leaked that the United States intended to respond (with limited strikes and without seeking regime change) to Syria’s massive use of chemical weapons on its citizens, and after criticism from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and others that the administration was blabbing too much and planning to do too little, the president, in an interview Wednesday night, said he hadn’t yet made up his mind. The leakers then began to suggest that whatever plan they previously leaked possibly could be a little more, but only a little. What does a smidgen more than a token gesture look like? An administration official had the gall to say President Obama would be “just muscular enough not to be mocked.” Too late for that.
This is no way to run foreign policy. (One wonders if anyone in the administration is ashamed of such talk.)
The administration is much more worried about the spin than actually devising a coherent policy. I agree the president should consult with Congress, as leaders have requested, because he might have to explain and therefore think through what we hope to accomplish and why military action that leaves Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in power and stores of chemical weapons in his possession makes any sense. (Hint: It doesn’t.)
The president, on one hand, says we’ve concluded chemical weapons have been used and, on the other hand, says our goal merely is to tell him not to do it again. This is bizarre. How can prefer him to remain in power after crimes against humanity? Make no mistake: When we say we will not pursue regime change, we are preferring for Assad to remain in power.
Some reports suggest chemical weapons attacks have become regular and predictable. Two LeMonde reporters followed the fighting up close in Syria. The gruesome effects of chemical weapons has not been widely reported in the United States. We should not avert our eyes. The LeMonde reporters tell us:
In the tangled web of the Jobar front, where enemy lines are so close that the fighters exchange insults as often as they kill each other, gas attacks occurred on a regular basis in April. The gas was not diffused over a broad swath of territory but used occasionally in specific locations by government forces to attack the areas of toughest fighting with the encroaching opposition rebels. This sector is the place where Free Syrian Army groups have penetrated most deeply into Damascus. A merciless war is being waged here. . . .
In the second half of April, gas attacks became almost a strange kind of routine in Jobar. On the front lines, the rebels of the Free Syrian Army got used to keeping their gas masks beside them. They held regular eye-washing sessions and had syringes ready with a special serum. The aim of the attacks seemed to be essentially tactical at this stage – an attempt to destabilize rebel units in areas where government soldiers have been unable to dislodge them, and at the same time a test. If Syrian army forces could dare to use chemical weapons in their own capital without setting off a serious international reaction, would that not be an invitation to pursue the experiment a bit further? So far, cases of the use of gas have not be isolated. The only opthamologist in the region, who was trained abroad, sees patients in a small hospital in Sabha which he prefers not to identify. He said he had seen 150 people affected by gas in the space of two weeks. Near the zones most exposed to gas, he has organized a system of showers so that rebel fighters exposed to chemical products can wash and change clothes to avoid contaminating health workers at clinics.
Saving the lives of soldiers with the most serious respiratory problems requires carrying them through a long maze of buildings with pierced walls, across trenches and through tunnels dug to avoid enemy snipers, to reach an improvised ambulance parked in a small, inconspicuous space. They must then be driven on a high-speed chase through streets under bullet and shell fire in order to reach a hospital at the front before the fighters die of suffocation.
This report came in May.
And still characters like Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) blame the victims, suggesting the rebels may have been the ones to use chemical weapons. While nothing coming from Paul should be shocking, this is truly repugnant. (This is not the first time Rand Paul has argued on behalf of Assad.)
Assad’s reported conduct should be recognized as causing routine mass atrocities, for which there is no effective “warning.” We do not take — at least we have not previously taken — the position that monsters who commit such acts can remain in office, unless rebels manage to remove them. Assad’s crimes are not merely against Syrians but against the civilized world. We either support and enforce an international regimen in which such conduct results in forfeiture of power, or we invite moral chaos. The rebels are not the enforcers of international norms; we, with willing allies, are supposed to do that. (If we’ve learned anything under Obama, it is that if the United States doesn’t do it, no nation or international body will.) The president’s failure to grasp this at this late date is deplorable.